UN Under Siege in Sri Lanka: Why Accountability for War Crimes Matters

There is a stunning anti-UN protest underway in Columbo, Sri Lanka. Nationalist protesters led by a government official have blockaded scores of UN employees inside a UN compound.  Outside, protestors have burned Ban Ki Moon in effigy

As police looked on Tuesday, [Housing Minister] Weerawansa and a group of ultranationalist Buddhist monks led men waving national flags on a march to the U.N. office. The protesters initially tried to break into the compound, which sits inside a high security zone protected by checkpoints and soldiers, but failed to breach the high walls.

Instead, they held a sit-in, blocking both exists, spray-painting the security camera at the gate — in an apparent bid not to be identified — and preventing employees working inside from leaving.

What would inspire such venom being directed against the UN and its Secretary General?  Late last month, Ban Ki Moon appointed a three person panel, led by former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman, to advise the Secretary General on issues relating to accountability for alleged war crimes that occurred in the waning days of a 20 year civil war.

Nationalist protestors and the government apparently think this is a very bad idea. And it is not hard to understand why the goverment would be chary. From January to May 2009, the Sri Lankan military dealt the final blows to a twenty year insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (Tamil Tigers, or LTTE). The military’s strategy was fairly straightforward: encircle the LTTE and drive them to the sea. With the Indian ocean to their back and superior government forces to the front, the LTTE would have no choice but to surrender. 

They did not. Instead, the LTTE forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to remain in the conflict zone, ostensibly as human shields.  The government, in turn, declared that certain areas of LTTE held territory would be safe for civilians. They called these “No Fire Zones.”

No fire zones became free fire zones for the Sri Lankan military. Hospitals and humanitarian convoys were also targeted as the small swath of territory held by the Tamil Tigers and their civilian hostages came under heavy bombing.  At the time, UN figures put the civilian death toll at 7,000.  Last month, a report from the International Crisis Group accused the government of deliberately targeting the no-fire zones and makeshift hospitals. It puts the death toll from the final weeks of fighting “in the tens of thousands.” When the Tigers were finally defeated, the Sri Lankan government held everyone in military run prison camps that were out of bounds for journalists and international NGOs.

So far, there has been no judicial accountability for the government or military officials that led this brutal campaign.  Basic decency would demand that the people who ordered the strikes on no-fire-zones face some sort of justice.  But the need for accountability goes beyond simply demanding justice for war crimes’ victims. 

The sad truth is that the military’s brutal tactics worked.  After suffering 20 years of suicide bombings, assassinations and terrorist attacks by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government took the gloves off and destroyed the insurgency.  The bombing of civilians, and the terrorists who happened to be among them, succeeded as a counter-insurgency strategy. 

The Sri Lankan military showed the world that it is possible to destroy even the most intransigent foes if you are also willing to kill very large numbers of civilian non-combatants.  If these crimes go unpunished, what is stopping other countries with persistent insurgencies to adopt the “Sri Lankan method” of fighting terrorism?  The answer is nothing. Unless, that is, the international community is willing to show that there are real consequences for waging this kind of brutal, indiscriminate warfare.